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At this prom, the geeks are the cool kids

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata
April 16, 2006 | Pioneer Press

Malia Vadnais, by her own admission, "wasn't extremely popular" in high school — not that she minded much. She practically reveled in her nerdy differentness.

"I'd wear a blazer and a tie to school," the Cambridge, Minn., woman recalls. "I'd go through my dad's closet for the ugliest plaid shirt I could find."

It's hardly surprising, then, that Vadnais is attending Saturday's Geek Prom, Minnesota's grand celebration of all things dorky, nerdy and not-cool.

The Geek Prom, now in its fifth year, has moved from its Duluth home base this year into the ultimate geek venue, the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Attendees wearing taped-up glasses, Klingon battle garb, marching-band uniforms and old, appallingly out-of-style promwear will get to engage in grand acts of geekiness, such as playing video games on one of the museum's giant movie screens and posing for prom photos inside the mouth of a T-Rex.

But Geek Prom staples aren't going away, either. Attendees can still "spaz dance," which involves as much writhing as dancing. And kings and queens of proms past will choose this year's bearers of crowns and sashes — after quizzing royalty candidates on their nerd knowledge, of course.

And, of course, there might be a Geek Streak, the sudden but no-longer-surprising appearance of a nude nerd pack hollering and scurrying through the crowd. A popular video of a past Geek Streak is dubbed, appropriately enough, "Geeks Gone Wild."


The Geek Prom is the brainchild of Paul Lundgren, a Duluth-based freelance writer who first envisioned a "prom for adults" back in the mid-1990s. He figured a lot of people around Duluth hadn't attended their high school proms because of rebelliousness or social ineptness, or those who did go to prom "had a bad experience."

He found little initial enthusiasm for his idea among his friends and peers, who said they couldn't imagine re-creating a dreaded event often consisting of "people standing around staring at their shoes next to the punch bowl."
They were right, Lundgren now admits.

But "once the name 'geek prom' came up, the whole vision became clear," he says. "Once we were able to throw out all the uptightness that comes with trying to be cool (at a traditional prom), once we let the inner geek flow out, we really had something."

With the help of a prominent area music promoter, whom Lundgren says he hounded mercilessly until the man agreed to lend his event-organizing expertise, the prom was on.

Past venues have included the Duluth Technology Village, a high-tech city complex, and Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium, where prom attendees gleefully engaged in David Letterman-style rounds of "Will It Float?"

The prom moves to St. Paul this year at the Science Museum's behest. "It kind of came on our radar as a fun, cool event," says Liza Atkinson, museum special-events coordinator, "and it seemed a perfect fit."

The museum is keen on attracting young adults to supplement its typical kid, parent and grandparent clientele. Organizers are trying to make the prom difficult to resist with seminars like "The Science of Sex" and "Mixology 101: The Chemistry of Cocktails."


So what is a geek, exactly? Typical prom attendees can be a bit hard to define, Lundgren admits. But their behavior, in many cases, will give them away: Some may engage in impromptu prom-floor "Dungeons & Dragons" sessions (something they could do anywhere) or carry their escorts with them ("Inflatable, cardboard or otherwise inanimate dates will be admitted at no charge," the museum says.)

Geek garb is another dead giveaway. "The way we sort of officially say it is, 'If you're a geek, you should already be dressed (for the prom) and ready to go,' " Lundgren says.

Minneapolis filmmaker Chuck Olsen, a self-confessed nerd who is attending his second Geek Prom, jokingly refers to the event as neutral ground where flamboyantly dressed Renaissance Festival types and "Star Trek" fanatics in their Starfleet uniforms can enjoy a temporary détente.

Prom attendees do tend to have an innate awkwardness in common, Lundgren adds. "The more ridiculous and uncomfortable you feel, the more you fit in" at the event.

Crystal Pelkey, last year's queen, didn't attend her high school prom and got together with a group of girlfriends for a slumber party instead. Even today, her prom bio at says, "All of her romances have been imaginary. She has been with her current boyfriend, musician Dave Matthews, for eight years."

But it's "exciting to have prom queen as part of my accomplishments," says Pelkey, store manager for New Moon Publishing in Duluth and a collector of "Star Wars" memorabilia.

Vadnais, now married, did attend her high school prom but says it wasn't a pleasant occasion. She was dateless, obliged to attend as "a third wheel" with a couple she knew, and her time at the event was short — the man in her party got into a fistfight in the parking lot and was expelled from the event.

She had to leave with the couple, she recalls. "They were my ride."

But in a somewhat spectacular nerd comeback, Vadnais has the ultimate date for this month's prom. Her husband, a classmate whom she met after she graduated from high school, was class president, captain of the football team and — unlike herself in school — "the epitome of popular."